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AG says she won't seek charges against Suffolk police in death of man in 2020

Suffolk police detectives work the scene near a

Suffolk police detectives work the scene near a South Ocean Avenue home in Patchogue where police say Wenzola Roundtree died on July 19, 2020. Credit: James Carbone

New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced Friday she would not seek criminal charges against the Suffolk County police officers who arrested a Patchogue man who died from cardiac arrest in police custody last year, saying the officers used the "minimal amount of force" while handcuffing him.

James’ office investigated the July 19 death of Wenzola Rountree, 42, under a state law appointing the attorney general as special prosecutor when unarmed civilians die during police interactions.

"This was a tragic situation that resulted in the death of Mr. Rountree," James said in a statement Friday. "Based on all the evidence we gathered and analyzed over the course of our investigation, we concluded that there was no evidence that the members of the Suffolk County Police Department engaged in criminal conduct."

Rountree's cause of death, according to a 15-page report compiled by the attorney general’s Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit, was listed as "acute cardiac arrest during physical altercation while under the influence of cocaine and alcohol and with underlying hypertensive and atherosclerotic heart disease."

The Suffolk County medical examiner ruled Rountree's death a homicide, the report said, noting that Rountree's physical struggle with police officers, as well as with residents of a home he is alleged to have illegally entered, "likely contributed to Mr. Rountree's death."

But the report, which noted investigators had reviewed both police body camera and dashboard camera footage in making its determinations, said the officers only had physical contact with Rountree for one minute and 26 seconds — the amount of time it took the officers to subdue Rountree, who had been resisting and kicking.

The officers did not assault, choke or put any pressure on Rountree's neck or back during the handcuffing process, witnesses told investigators, and there were no abrasions or lacerations to his neck, back or chest, the report said.

The incident began when Suffolk police responded to a 911 call at 12:56 a.m. reporting a naked man talking to himself in the backyard of a home on Brook Street in Patchogue.

Rountree was "naked, lying on the ground with labored breathing, sweaty, grunting and growling," the report said. A friend who spent time with Rountree earlier that day said he had snorted nearly all of a large bag of cocaine, as well as drinking some brandy, and began "sweating profusely" and acting paranoid, the report said.

The responding officers — Greg Sandbichler, Joseph Guido and Brian McMurray — immediately called for medical help when they observed him to be incoherent, agitated, sweating and to have labored breathing, the report said.

Responding EMTs, as well as the officers, according to the report, spent "approximately 12 to 15 minutes, trying to talk to Mr. Rountree, calm him down, and convince him to seek medical attention, but were unsuccessful."

Rountree "did not respond and continued to grunt and growl" and then fled the yard, jumping fences before he entered a home on Ocean Avenue through an unlocked door, the report said.

Police could hear a resident of the home shouting for help and Rountree struggled initially with the father and son who lived in the home, before police tried to handcuff him in a "very narrow" hallway inside the home.

Murray, while trying to cuff Rountree with the other officers, told him: "Easy, we don’t want to hurt you. Just put your hands behind your back so we can get you outside. You don’t live here."

After he was handcuffed, Rountree, who "only seconds before could be heard grunting and growling and was resisting and kicking his legs, did not respond," the report said. Police summoned EMS inside the home and began performing CPR, the report said.

The emergency medical technicians took over the CPR, but Rountree was pronounced dead on arrival at Long Island Community Hospital in Patchogue, the report said.

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